A prominent leader in the national movement to build positive, inclusive, and inspiring humanist communities, Greg M. Epstein has served the country’s rapidly growing population of non-religious people for nearly two decades. Described as a “godfather to the [humanist] movement” by The New York Times Magazine in recognition of his efforts, Epstein was also named “one of the top faith and moral leaders in the United States” by Faithful Internet, a project coordinated by the United Church of Christ with assistance from the Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society.
Since 2005, Greg has served as the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University. He has also served, since 2018, as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Office of Religious Life as Humanist Chaplain at MIT and Convener for Ethical Life. He also currently serves as ethicist in residence and columnist for TechCrunch, a leading publication chronicling the tech industry.
Greg has also served in an advisory capacity for a diverse range of interfaith and humanist institutions, including Boston Mayor Martin Walsh’s Interfaith Advisory Task Force and the Advisory Board of the Secular Student Alliance. He also supported “The Inclusive America Project,” an initiative of the Aspen Institute co-chaired by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. From 2008-2014, he served on the Executive Committee of the Harvard Chaplains, with a term as vice president.
Greg is a frequently-quoted expert on humanism, religion and ethics. Greg authored the New York Times bestselling book, “Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe.” His writing has appeared on CNN, Newsweek, The Washington Post, Salon, Cognoscenti and WBUR. His work has also been widely discussed in the national and international media, including the New York Times, CNN, Boston Globe, and on dozens of radio and television programs.
- Greg Epstein Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- Peniel JosephFounding Director of the LBJ School’s Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the University of Texas at Austin
[0:00:07 Peniel] Welcome to race and democracy, a podcast on the intersection between race, democracy, public policy, social justice, and citizenship.
[0:00:21 Peniel] Okay, my guest today is Greg Epstein, who’s the humanist chaplain at Harvard University and MIT And a New York Times bestseller for Good Without God. And he is the writer at TechCrunch, and he’s written really an amazing Siris of articles for TechCrunch on tech and ethics that includes fabulous work with the best selling author Joma a lot on. That’s a fantastic book about race, and she worked in Seattle and worked in Tech for a time. So Greg Epstein, welcome to race and Democracy.
[0:01:00 Greg] Thank you. Thank you, Dr Joseph. It’s great to be with you.
[0:01:04 Peniel] And you know my first question, Greg, what is a humanist chaplain? Because you explain it in your articles and you have a fascinating story and we’re gonna get to the back story later on into the conversation. But what is a humanist chaplain? What do you do at Harvard and MIT Besides the work you do TechCrunch What do you do?
[0:01:23 Greg] Yeah, and and so I was ethicist and residents for a year and a half a techcrunch bond. That was a lot of fun. It ended in June. But I’ll be back there at some point, writing more for them. Um, but in any case, um ah. Humanist chaplain is sort of and non religious. Religious advisor for humanists, atheists, agnostics, uh, religiously unaffiliated people who want to explore meaning and purpose in their life who want a sense of meaningful community, um, to be part of something bigger than themselves and and to explore how toe live the best life that they can from a secular perspective.
[0:02:12 Peniel] And it’s interesting. So you’re a humanist, but you’re also an agnostic because I consider myself a humanist. But I’m a Christian agnosticism. The atheism and humanism you’ve you’ve written that you think about humanism is sort of a secular religion. So can you explain that?
[0:02:27 Greg] Yeah. I mean, it’s a secular alternative to religion or secular equivalent of religion in Europe. They call it a life stance because that that sort of indicates that it’s it’s similar to a religion from a sociological perspective, from a community perspective, it’s just not a religion in that traditional sense of having ah, deity having a sense of what comes before after this life, etcetera. Um, and so to your listeners, most common definition, I’m probably more like an atheist and agnostic. Um, but, you know, agnostic in the sense that you can’t prove one way or another through reason and science that there is or isn’t a deity, but atheist in the sense that, um I believe I believe the evidence suggests overwhelmingly to me that, um, religion is the creation of human beings. Um, and that that’s that’s my That’s my approach to life. That’s my That’s my worldview. Um and yeah, I mean, for me, um, humanism is a term that goes back to, uh, the Renaissance. And in that sense, it was a term that people coined for, um, it could be Christian, but something that is mawr than just exploring the mind of God was with what the original humanists meant by the term, um, in the, you know, 1516 hundreds, etcetera. But in the late 19th, early 20th century, people started to use the term humanist. You could think of it with a capital H. I don’t know that I feel like I need to think of it that way. But the idea of humanist as being a word to describe, um, people with unethical worldview, people who are trying to live good and positive lives and who believe in evolution, who believe in the big Bang who believe again that that human beings wrote the Bible or other religious sacred texts, that we created all of the ethical codes that have ever been created to meet our own needs and not because they were divinely inspired, but because we feel a deep need. Um, given the kind of creatures that we are thio try to be good to one another to try to take care of one another, to try to build something on this planet that is better than what we found when we got here, and that honors the fact that we are a Scarl. Sagan would have said, Uh, star stuff that that we are because of the way the universe evolved were collections of trillions of inter collected cells. Each one of us is and every single one of those trillions of cells in each ones we each one of our bodies is made out of literal star stuff. It’s made out of the stuff of exploded stars from billions of years ago, and we have this opportunity to be essentially the universe talking to itself. And so we wanna honor that legacy and do something worthwhile with it.
[0:05:41 Peniel] That sounds so inspiring. And when we think about where we’re at today in the United States and the world, when you think this America’s racial reckoning, the world’s racial and political reckoning black lives matter, millions of people all across the world out in the streets, uh, trying to imagine a different society and more humanistic, I would say society, a society that builds consensus around the notion that black lives matter. But in a corollary way, that means some other people of color and people who are transsexual and queer on marginalized and poor. Non a able bodied are gonna matter as well. But we say black lives matter because that’s the litmus test. That’s the common denominator. Um, what? What do you see in terms of humanism and and race and humanism and black citizenship and dignity? At this moment? Where can humanism, uh, intersect with that call? Or does it?
[0:06:39 Greg] I think it’s incredibly important Thio to talk about and to explore how humanism intersects with racial justice and racial injustice. I think that, um, people, I would put it this way because this is something that it still eats at me. It still it still bothers me. But I think in a healthy way, um, that racial justice is about the fact that we have lived in a society for hundreds of years. You know, let’s say, since 16 19, let’s let’s float that as the as the starting point. Um, where people have, um, people have built their society around the idea that one group of people, um, is more worthy then another. And that belief has been used thio to dominate Thio, to pillage and to to take mawr than once fair share, um, at other people’s expense. I mean that that’s it’s been, um, at least the sort of twin sibling of our yearning for justice, of our yearning, for equality, of our yearning, for freedom, of our of our, um, all of our effort to build a better society. These two poles have existed alongside one another. You know, this this sense, this natural sense of, you know, let’s build something free. Let’s build something good. Let’s build something for all. And then you have this other side of it this side that we don’t talk about. I won’t call it a darker side, because even that word that something darker is is bat is worse. Um, is something that’s been used to oppress people psychologically and otherwise, who have more melanin than than others, right?
[0:08:37 Peniel] Absolutely. You know, our movement talked about that the next talked about that. Absolutely. Exactly.
[0:08:42 Greg] So So. But the point is that there’s this other side to our culture, to our civilization, Um, which is all about some people feeling the need. They some people feeling the insecurity, the helplessness, um, and turning that into rage, turning that into hatred, turning that into, um ah, power move to oppress others. Um, in the name of their own supremacy and in the name of the supposed inferiority of others, it’s just it’s it’s literally half of our culture. And as a humanist, I just I want to be part of of changing that.
[0:09:20 Peniel] And and how can we change that? Because I want to be very specific here because you’ve done some amazing work. These conversations with, uh, Joma Aluko about tech and race, which we’re going to get into. But just as an ethicist, how can we center black citizenship in black dignity? And I say that very purposefully, because I think that the only way we can ever center racial justice in the United States and globally is to talk about black folks and not just, say, this sort of catch all of diversity, equity and inclusion because the original sin is racial slavery, an anti black racism. Is the organizing principle off white supremacy, racial violence, racist public policies? And if somebody who’s who’s white who can enter these spaces whether you’re talking about Harvard or M I T or Tech or Google on, do you know you’ve done Ted X talks you’ve done? You’ve done all these different things. The podcast. How can we center and I mean center and not just anti racism, because we’re all talking about anti racism now. I think that’s brilliant. I teach that as well. Abram Candy. We’re all best selling books, white privilege, but I mean I mean black citizenship and black dignity and justice. How can we center that and how are you trying to do that right now?
[0:10:43 Greg] First of all, by admitting that I don’t know all the answers to your question, but I will say that I agree with you completely on the premise that that centering black lives and black dignity in this society at this moment is the thing that we need to do. And I agree that, um, while you know, there are perhaps important reasons to talk about people of color and about all kinds of marginalized people, Certainly. Um, yes. The original sin of this country is is the decision to particularly oppress and subject gate and destroy the lives and families of black people on. But that continues to this day. And, you know, my the most inspiring high school class that I took, um, on prejudice and persecution when I was a teenager, focused on the idea of the war against the black man in this country and what that has done to all of us. And, you know, I continue thio to see the world through that lens. To some degree, I I think it’s incredibly important. Um, certainly,
[0:11:54 Peniel] and certainly black women too and Rianna Taylor
[0:11:56 Greg] Yeah. Yeah. Maybe that was a blind spot for me. Or, you know, blind spot is not the best way to put it. But maybe that was a a weakness in my own understanding of the world I’m talking about. When I was in high school in the early to mid nineties, um, that maybe I was so focused on injustice against black men that I didn’t see how much oppression and suffering, um, exactly was was occurring in the lives of black women. Um, I think maybe I grew up with a little bit more of a mindset that black women were doing, um, Mawr, Okay, that they were achieving mawr equality alongside white women and that black men were suffering disproportionately. And I think that we’ve, ah, lot of us, you know, and certainly myself. I’ve I’ve been I’ve had my eyes opened, um, in recent years, um, to the idea that, uh, you know, you can’t You can’t just a press one gender, um, in, you know, among one quote unquote racial category without without causing extraordinary suffering to all genders within that community. Um, yeah.
[0:13:19 Peniel] No. Absolutely. And, you know, black women. Black men, black trans women black queer on L G B T. Q. I folks are all suffering and they all suffer differently, so it’s not necessarily a hierarchy there, but they’re gonna be suffering in different ways. And they’re all super exploited, including our Children on our babies. When you think about the maternal health care of black women, when you think about rates of HIV and AIDS for young people s so we definitely are at a point, I think, with the BLM movement where we’ve been centering those who are the least of these, even within the black community, which I think is very powerful when you see the black trans lives matter marches in Brooklyn, when you see so many black women like Tamika Mallory and Brittney Packed and Alicia Garza, Patrice Khan Cullors who were at the forefront Uh, eso we don’t just have to say Angela Davis and and these sort of luminaries from from the 19 sixties and seventies, we have these contemporary young people who are leaders. I want to talk to you about tech because you’re an expert here, and I really want to delve into this because you’ve written really provocative things that I think are very, very interesting about sort of tech as a new secular religion. Tech as may be the most popular religion ever invented when we think about the way in which it dominates our lives, but also the way in which tech has reproduced patterns of racial inequity and patterns of white supremacy and its on Lee now in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder that white people in tech are talking about this because they have to, not because they want to, because they have to. So I want us to drill down in a in a big way about, you know, race and tech black people in tech. This is connected to both wealth inequality. It’s connected to the fact that what predominantly white male patriarchal text spaces produced in terms of technology continue to further inequity and disparaging and dehumanization and demonization of black people. But also tech is connected to the super exploitation of black bodies that are imprisoned that attend racially segregated, economically impoverished schools where black kids are disproportionately going to go from public school to prison pipelines and juvenile so called juvenile delinquency. Our kids are five and 678 years old, being taken out of schools in handcuffs, little girls and boys, in addition to the George Floyd’s and the Briana Taylor and this murder of black people by law enforcement. So I’ve been very, very moved by what you’ve written in this sense, and I think everyone should, you know, who’s listening to our conversation should really read your articles. You know, again, our guest is Greg Epstein, who’s the humanist chaplain at M. I. T. And at Harvard University. But also for 18 months was the ethicists in residence at TechCrunch, and he produced a Siris of articles, 150,000 words that looked at tech and race and intersectionality in in unbelievable depth. That’s why we always bring our audience thes, thes thought leaders like Greg Epstein, who are having such an impact on the national and global state. So let’s talk about that, Greg.
[0:16:49 Greg] Yeah, thank you. I really appreciate it. And, you know, it’s it’s true in terms of, um, racial justice. That’s a knish you that is central to my heart. But I’m still learning, along with a lot of us. Um, and in the tech world, I had a chance to spend, um, a couple of years, sort of embedding myself as a chaplain. Um, in this text space TechCrunch being arguably the leading or certainly one of the leading tech publications in the world where my editor would always say that my my audience is the quote unquote tech elite. Um, and you know, that’s who I was writing for. That’s who was reading these pieces. And I wanted those people to see, um, the world that they were intentionally sort of shielding their eyes from. I wanted the tech companies, their executives on the people in the Silicon Valley culture, whether they’re, you know, actually in San Francisco or not to understand, um, that the world that they have built that they are building, that they intend to build, um is really an oppressive world. And and it’s it’s a world that, um, I do think resembles very much a religion. Um, it resembles, um, a religion on a sociological level. It has. It has sacred texts and myths. It has rituals. Um, you could even say it has a deity. I mean, you know, in referring to artificial intelligence. Ah, great humanist teacher of mine once said, um, that that they said, you know, I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe there’s been a god, but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe there will be a God. And, um the when I had a chance to sit in Seattle with E J Lo Melo, the number one New York Times best selling author of eso you wanna talk about race? And I asked her permission her blessing to talk about eso You wanna talk about race and tech and, um, hello is she’s very much, uh, a product of the tech world. She’s She grew up in Seattle. Um, she’s worked in tech in all of the different kinds of roles that you could imagine, including, Actually, at one point, her job was to to rip apart circuit boards herself with her own hands, and, um and she had something to say, which is really fascinating to me. Um, she considers herself to be other humanist, er, non religious person as well. And so that’s kind of how we got acquainted. She spoke at a humanist conference a couple years before, and she talked to me about how um yes, tech does remind her of religion and a religion with a very specific kind of myth. And that myth is that it’s a religion with a utopian vision, a vision of perfection here on Earth, heaven here and now, but for white men, Mhm. And when she said that to me, it really brought into into stark relief things that I’ve been exploring, the conversations that I have been having with executives, with tech workers, with marketing people with, with other journalists exploring technology with, with other ethicists, etcetera. Yeah, tech is like a religion, but it’s like a utopian religion for white men. That’s the culture.
[0:20:28 Peniel] And when you think about that religion in tech, um, what has it been like this pre George Floyd? And then I’ll ask you post when you’ve tried to bring these issues up, because the conversation that I know that you had with with Ngoma Aluko was in January of this year, right before the Cove in 19 Pandemic hit and right before we’ve seen the most white people in American history ever go out on the streets and publicly say that black lives matter and we’ve seen at the local level moves to defund the police, divest from police and invest uh, in communities of color. Um, what was it like before this time Yeah, And then I’ll ask you, What was it like? Like now What’s the difference that you’ve seen?
[0:21:23 Greg] Well, so I’ll start with a quick note of cynicism, and then I’ll move to hope. And then, if you want, we can go back to the cynicism. Eso The quick note is, you know, it’s all too easy to get out and and do a couple marches and say a couple things. And and you saw people in those early weeks of June making all sorts of grand gestures to inclusion and to to niceness. Um, but niceness is not the same as kindness, and it’s certainly not the same kind of thing, Is justice, right? So, you know, I don’t know. I certainly don’t think that we have achieved as much as you would think we’ve achieved. Based on if you were just watching American culture for the first couple weeks of June, you know, you’d think Wow, great. Everybody’s so equality minded. So justice minded. I don’t think we’re at that peak. Really? I think that was sort of a false peak. Sort of like, uh, you know, if you look at water and the water gets disturbed and you know it, it rises in a wave. Then you think, Oh, that’s the water level. That’s not the water level that we’re at yet. I don’t think, however, I’ll say this, um, my own experiences. I grew up in a pretty racial, justice oriented household. My mother had been a refugee from Cuba. She was separated from her family for a couple of years by U S immigration policy. As a young girl had lived with foster families. She came here with basically nothing. Um and you know, my my father was, um, came from sort of refugees from the Holocaust and as well. And so, you know, they were both really conscious of that. They both said to me essentially, never again and never again for anyone. Um, but, you know, and I grew up with that I took. Like I said, I took classes on subjects like this, even at a public high school in New York City, Um, and and saw myself as enlightened. Hopefully, right. But, um but in recent years, I started to realize that that for all my supposed enlightenment, I really hadn’t rocked. I really hadn’t taken in just how much racial injustice there was in this country and how much I was the beneficiary of that. Um, you know, I kind of, you know, I knew that I was privileged just to be walking around in what you think of his white skin and a male body. But I just didn’t really fully realized the extent how pervasive it is, how dominating it is. Um, and a big part of it for me I was sitting on a beach in Greece on my honeymoon, just the sort of the peak of feeling like, good in the world and feeling like, How lucky am I? I married a wonderful woman. I’m, you know, I’m in a beautiful place like my life is just beginning in so many ways. And I brought with me Ta Nehisi, Coates’s cover story of the Atlantic on reparations. Yeah, reparations. And I’m sitting there reading that, like, at the peak of my my my privilege, literally and and I’m reading it and my my mindset, my my worldview is falling apart. It’s like, Oh, you mean slavery wasn’t just huge. It was so huge that it was the largest single industry in the country. It was like Tech is now. That was that was slavery. And, you know, his image that he gives of, Um we think that we’ve stopped. We think that we’ve improved because we’re like the person who sticks the knife in your ribs and then pulls it out and then says, Well, you know, I don’t know why you’re bleeding. I mean, I clearly stopped stabbing you, right? That’s that’s the country that we live in. It’s the person we’ve stabbed. It’s still bleeding. We still haven’t applied adequate bandage. And, you know, I saw that that day. You know that one day on the beach that I was sat and I read it for a few hours, and I realized that I just couldn’t be the same. And then, um, it was again coats on. Do you know it helps for me because Coates is an atheist and what I think of as a humanist, I don’t know if he’s used the word humanist, but certainly atheist. Um, so we really got to me. I really could relate Toto what he was saying. And when I read between the world and me, you know that that stereotypical you know, Jeff of the you know, your brain exploding. I mean, that was me. I read that book. I couldn’t put it down, and I and I, um I was fortunate enough. I was running ah, humanist community center at the time. And, um, we were hosting, um, racial justice workshops. Um, along with really a lot of people around the United States. It turns out that in 2015 and 2016 and 2017 were starting to mobilize racial justice work groups and, um, you know, sessions and reading groups and showing up groups and that sort of thing. And I will say that what I saw when I saw people get out onto the streets in June of 2020 was in some ways the product of a lot of grassroots mobilizing and educating and work. You know, I I realized that the same kind of stuff that I had been doing in my community center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2015, you know, the the year after I got back from that honeymoon and and read that, um, that incredible work on reparations, um, was the same thing that a lot of people have been doing, Whether it was in Austin, Texas, or Memphis, Tennessee, or or Oakland or whatever. Um, and it does suggest to me that while we still have a long way to go, that that we have been working at this and we can, um, to some degree celebrate just the the number of individual actions and individual impacts that that we’ve made,
[0:27:31 Peniel] what are some proactive things that I’ll start with Tech and then move into some other arenas? But that tech can do. I mean everything from TechCrunch writing about this and having you as the ethicists and residents for 18 months but to center black lives, black dignity, citizenship and then overall racial justice and equity in tech. What can they do? And we’re thinking, I’m thinking everything here from venture capitalists, venture philanthropists, thinking, obviously, in terms of public policy and education hiring practices. Um, we’ve all known about text, sexism and deep misogyny, but certainly I think the organizing principle is actually anti black racism. And sometimes women are hit especially hard if they’re women of color like e g. M o Aluko, and she writes about that. And so what are some proactive steps cause I’m here in Austin speaking to you in Austin, and we have our own Silicon Valley in Austin. And since all this has emerged, I’ve received so many requests and discussed on at times had really breakthroughs with with leaders of companies and at the C suite level V C level folks who want to, um, show up at this moment and they want to be impactful. So what are some things that you think that tech leaders conduce right now? Um Thio not, you know, to move away from cynicism and not do this as a photo op and really get that water rising to the high level and staying there that it had been in June?
[0:29:11 Greg] Well, look, I’m clearly even even after spending a couple of years on this. There’s part that I’m not the expert on, and that’s the policy element of it. I mean, I I can refer you to you know, it’s some of the best examples that I saw of people working on the policy, and I’ve been following their work closely. But I’ll tell you the part. First of all, that I think, is under appreciated, and that is actually mawr foundational than working on some of the policy that that we sometimes need to get to first before we can even, um, improve on tech policy and on the structure of tech companies on that is speaking about this from a theological perspective or from, ah, you know, ah, religious studies perspective. Um, I think we need tech leaders, um, especially white tech leaders, and I would say, even especially white male tech leaders to stop believing their own myths. Stop believing your own theology, you know, And I’m not talking here about you know, whether people should be Christian or Jewish or Muslim or whatever. I mean, that that’s a separate argument. But stop believing your own tech theology. And what I mean by that is, um, stop believing so much in yourself that you actually end up believing that you are the genius that you are the most deserving, that you are the meritocratic beneficiary of the meritocracy. Um, because it usually just isn’t true. Um, those myths are are are myths and they benefit a certain group of people, and they were created for the benefit of a certain group of people. And I’ll give you a couple of concrete examples because that’s sort of a broad statement, and it’s a statement that’s, I admit, you know, intended to frustrate and maybe piss off if I might say a certain sector of people, but, you know, Ah, couple of examples. Um, first of all, you know, I was raised to think of myself as a smart kid, and I attended classes in, um, Flushing, Queens in New York City. Um, you know, public school classes where where I was, I was in the intellectually gifted classes. That’s what they called us, right? The the I, g c intellectually gifted Children. And we were taught to think of ourselves as intellectually gifted Children, you know, which implies that other people are not as gifted as us, right? And that therefore we were going to go on, we’re gonna become leaders. We were going to become great people were going to do great things. We’re gonna We’re gonna lead all those other kids in the other classrooms from us down the hall, right? And you know, I believe I’m a smart person. Sure, Why not? You know I can I can think pretty decently. Not not perfect. Increasingly, as I get older, you know, I noticed the holes in my own thinking, but you know. Okay, sure. I’m a smart person, but, you know, I actually have come to believe that that even, um ah, good portion of my own intelligence. The actual stuff of how my brain works and how well I’m able to think and how well I’m able to succeed in certain situations is part of white supremacy. Because I was the kid in a very diverse classroom with people that looked very different from myself. You know, I was the Onley white male, uh, in my elementary school classroom who was American citizen and who spoke with a quote unquote American accent. I was the only one, um, for most of the years of my elementary school, and, um, I was the kid that teachers had an unconscious bias towards and could see and like, Oh, yeah, that’s the kid that that is, you know, that I would expect to be smart, so I’ll pay that a little extra attention. I’ll talk to him in that little extra way, and I really believe that that helped me to develop cognitively. Um and you know, if you oppress people for hundreds and hundreds of years if you damage them in every way. If you split apart their families and and and erode their trust in one another in the world around them, that’s gonna have a terrible impact on their ability to, you know, to think freely that’s gonna take generations to repair. And so it’s like even the building blocks of our personalities are are irreparably, not irreparably, because I have to believe that we are repairing this. We are fixing this. We’re bringing out the beauty of everybody’s intelligence now. But we’re still existing in the tech world where you have this myth that certain guys, you know, with the Mount Rushmore of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and Larry and Sergey. And you know what? What is this picture have in common, right? That’s certain people Zuckerberg and and so on and so on. Right? Um, that certain guys just have the right stuff as that movie said, Um, and it’s part of the myth that we have created to, um to build ourselves up at other people’s expense. And so I I want, um, tech leaders, specifically the men who identify with those quote unquote great men that I just that I just named toe look in the mirror and be able to say, Maybe I’m not as great as smart, as brilliant as I’ve been taught to think of myself as, and maybe that’s okay, Maybe I’m no better than anybody else and maybe that’s good. Maybe that’s good news. Um, you know, Pearl Jam has a song, um, on their latest album, which is a really anti racist, anti anti black racism kind of album, I think, um uh, called gigatons. They have a song where Eddie Vedder sings. No one man can be greater than the Sun. That’s not a negative thought. It’s a positive, it’s a positive, and we’re taught that white men in the tech world can be greater than the sun, and that’s a that’s a negative thought. We should begin to see that as a negative thought. Um, it’s not going to take anything away from men like me and leaders like them Thio to take ourselves down a peg because if anything, it will enable us to start to see that Ah, good life is not necessarily a life where you have tens of thousands of times more stuff than everybody else. Ah, good. Life is a is a life where you feel connected to the people around you, where you feel a sense of kinship, a sense of solidarity, a sense of love and affection where you give that love and affection to the other people around you. And you get that love and affection and you begin to know that you are actually cared about by the people around you. That’s what I want the white men in tech spaces to actually experience, to feel that they are warmly cared about and and well regarded by the people around them. And that is something that they’re going to get more of if they can give up some of that feeling of Look at me. I’m better than you in every way,
[0:36:59 Peniel] you wrote in an op ed in the Boston Globe called the Gift of Anger and broken hardness. And you say, as a chaplain to atheists and agnostics, watching our various tribal affiliations seemingly tearing us apart, I long for values that can meet this moment by transcending sectarianism. And then you you talk about John Dewey and a common faith, uh, and a faith in humanity. uniting diverse believers and secularists. Although you note Eddie Clouds critique of Dewey. He never used race. He never centered. Race is a challenge to democracy. One of the things I’ve seen during this moment to is that everyone is longing for a new consensus. And obviously, every single consensus that we’ve had, uh, previously has been marred by racism and sexism and homophobia and in classism and just violence. Just all these terrible things. And one of things I’ve been arguing to is that America’s in the midst of a third reconstruction right now. And when we think about the first two reconstructions, um, there was some progress. But ultimately their failures, because people continue to be super exploited, led by black people, is sort of the organizing principles the canary in the coal mines for the racial caste system that we have. You know, Isabel Wilkerson has the new book cast, and we do have a caste system Ah, hierarchy ladder, if you will, where whites are at the top and black people at the bottom and the other races air really in a scramble, most of them trying to access whiteness. Yes, that’s what most of them trying to do because whiteness produces a supply chain of power and privilege in contrast to misery and grief and premature death. So we think about this common faith in this new consensus. Um, you know, this will really be, uh, a question of how do we create that consensus right now? And you talk about this in terms of faith in science. You alluded to it in your other answer as well. But how do we create this? This new consensus around humanity around citizenship that’s going to include people who don’t have status in the United States? So that means undocumented. How do we create a new consensus around the non able bodied? But again, black people across all these sectors experience more pain and more marginalization, more premature death. So how do we create a new consensus that centers black citizenship and dignity as part of a universal humanist project?
[0:39:43 Greg] Thank you. That’s beautifully stated and then beautifully asked. I, um I can’t imagine a better question on dso I I would say First of all, um, it does come down to again some of our beliefs that that the reason I decided to dedicate my life to studying religion as a non religious person is because, um, I do believe that the beliefs that we have about ourselves and the beliefs that we hold about each other and about our society and about our world, um, really define and shape what we then go out and do, which is the most important thing, what we build, which is the most important thing. Um, like, if you want to do good things and build good things, then you start. It’s it’s very important, Toto, work on what you believe and what motivates you. What animates you? Because we’ve we’ve got these myths that that we need thio address. So, you know, I would love to see us focus on common values, common beliefs like the idea that, um, democracy is a Siris of sacred acts. Um, that that building a society in which we vote religiously, literally, religiously, like as if voting was a sacrament that you wouldn’t want to miss. Um, like, it’s a prayer that you wouldn’t want to forget to say, Um and that it means everything s o that that kind of society where where we where we honor the process of doing science, which is every bit the providence, the property of every single person. Um, science is not something that we should ever see as the property or the creation of any one group or anyone kind of person. Um, but but the thinking process, the critical thinking process of being willing to critique anything of being willing to critique any hypothesis, testing, searching for evidence with great passion until we find truth. And if we then later find that our truth needs revision, that we revise that truth of journalism and and writing about our history in such a way that we we relentlessly critique our understanding of ourselves so as to improve it so as to bring about more love, more caring, more compassion, more connection, etcetera. Um, you know, those air, the foundational things that I think, um, John Dewey had real insight into. But, you know, I also looked to somebody like Eddie Glaude as having Justus much insight into them as Dewey himself. Did you know in his book, begin again? Um, which which, you know, really works on this premise of a third reconstruction of America. Um, Glaude is very much a new Dewey and and and many other Zara’s well. And, um And then I would say, though, that that here is where theology and belief and and critiquing of myth is not enough. However, it does require policy change, it does require structural change, big structural changes. My original presidential candidate like to say, Um and that is where I would say, um that we simply need to become bolder in pushing for the idea that there that that the level of inequality that we have is shameful and scandalous and unacceptable, and that we have to reclaim not only power but resource is from people who have absolutely hoarded them. Um, that that we need a much more equal society. I’m not talking about any kind of, you know, thorough going socialism or communism or whatever, where, you know. But neither is somebody like a Bernie Sanders, you know? I mean, Bernie Sanders isn’t some kind of some sort of radical anti capitalist, Really, He’s just proposing a decent healthcare system. He’s proposing, Ah, decent environmental policy. He’s proposing a decent, wise, uh, tax system that you know in which you know anyone and everyone can take entrepreneurship can take initiative, but from a perspective of knowing that they’ll be cared about. They’ll be valued. They won’t be treated as as the lower caste, which you’re exactly correct about, by the way, Um and so is Isabel Wilkerson. And so are others on that. So was Martin Luther King when he looked into caste in India in his travels there. Um, you know, it’s, um a we need to actually dismantle that system and build a mawr equal system. Um, that, as the philosopher John Rawls would have said, um, that takes care of the decent of the basic needs for a decent and dignified life of each and every single human being before it allows people to, um, toe hoard and stockpile Resource is, um that that no one could ever imagine
[0:45:12 Peniel] my final question and short answer. Are you hopeful about the future?
[0:45:17 Greg] You know that? That’s the question that I asked. You know, I did these 40 Some are articles for TechCrunch, and at the end of every single one of them, I would ask people, How optimistic are you about our shared human future and everybody would give a different answer, and I never had the question turned back around on me until just now. So thank you. Uh, you know, I would say, um, I saw something on Twitter the other day from, ah, Twitter account called plague poems, which, you know have no connection to, but it was pretty funny. It said something like, you are permitted to be buoyed by the positive developments in the world, so long as you’re not so buoyed that you forget about the negative developments in the world. And, you know, I think that there is a lot to indicate that that we’re fighting back or that we’re fighting forward. Um, but we cannot allow. I cannot allow myself a level of optimism that denies that the extreme pain that that people have been in and are in and are probably going to continue to be in for for too long we’ve got to fight back. I feel like I need to fight back against the world around me, um, with with a sense of how bad it can get and how bad it’s been. Um, and just a little bit of hope that that maybe, um maybe even in the crumbling of certain institutions, we are going to build something better for our kids.
[0:46:49 Peniel] All right, we’re ending on a hopeful note. I’ve been discussing race and technology and really humanism with really one of the thought leaders right now in the United States. Greg Epstein, who’s the humanist chaplain at Harvard and M I t. He’s a New York Times bestseller. Good Without God. He was the ethicist in residence at TechCrunch for 18 months. Um, he’s developing staying human podcast at M I. T. On. He’s written op EDS and so many great articles that really help us find ballast in these times. Greg. Thank you. I enjoyed the conversation.
[0:47:30 Greg] That’s very kind of you. And thank you, Dr. Joseph. And you’re really one of the thought leaders in this country, Um, pioneering the idea of race and democracy as a form of study and and practical efforts in a place like Austin, that’s that’s huge. I hope to visit you someday.
[0:47:47 Peniel] Absolutely. Thank you. Thanks for listening to this episode, and you can check out related content on Twitter at Peniel. Joseph, that’s p e n i E l j o s e. Ph and our website CSR d dot LBJ dot utexas dot e d U and the Center for Study of Racing Democracies on Facebook as well. This podcast was recorded at the Liberal Arts Development Studio at the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Austin. Thank you. Mm